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International Aid for Women

Wednesday, March 19, 2003 at 12:30 PM

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March is a month when we celebrate women. Throughout Women's History Month we pay tribute to their contributions. On International Women's Day we highlight their needs. But there's an organization in Cleveland that focuses on women 365-days a year. And they do so around the world and right around the corner. International Partners in Mission recently relocated its headquarters to Cleveland. ideastream's Karen Schaefer has this profile.

In 1974 two Lutheran missionaries returning from service in India and Japan decided to try something revolutionary. They founded a international aid program in St. Louis, Missouri based on principles that went against the grain of traditional mission/aid work.

Joe Cistone: It’s not our role as North Americans to determine what the needs are in the community and try to fix them, but rather that we enter into partnership humbly and try to ask and be supportive of what the local community identifies as its respective assets and its needs.

That’s Joe Cistone. He’s the executive director of International Partners in Mission, which moved its headquarters from St. Louis to Cleveland in 2001. Sistone says IPM began as a Lutheran organization, but has gradually become an interfaith group that works with partners internationally regardless of religion. He says some of the issues they deal with come right off the news headlines.

Joe Cistone: A couple weeks ago there were stories about young women who had been trafficked for prostitution from Cleveland ending up in Detroit. We’re working with groups in Europe, particularly a group of Nigerian women who were forced into the sex trade in southern Italy, and trying to help them to develop other life skills and possiblities to get out of that experience.

Cistone says in recent years, the organization has focused most of its efforts on women, children and youth. He says experience has taught that helping women first helps the entire community.

Joe Cistone: I just believe that when women are provided with the resources and the technical support that they need to build upon their own assets in their own community, the impact is just profound. Women oftentimes are the heads of families and they tend to spend their resources and to allocate their time and energy to their families. And I’m not trying to sound anti-male, but I do think that tests and time have born that out.

Local groups of women around the world contact IPM for help with needs ranging from public health to environmental justice. In turn, the organization provides links to funding and technical support that can help make the projects successful. Sistone says the goal is self-sufficiency. Because IPM is small, with only a $400,000 annual budget, the group has to stretch its resources. But sometimes, a project cries out for on-the-ground organization. That’s what happened when Leah Schulze first visited the rugged back country of Nepal.

Leah Schulze: Well, I first traveled to Nepal was in 1993, when I was just backpacking through Southeast Asia after graduate school. And of all the countries that I went to, I just competely fell in love with Nepal. The people, the landscape, the natural beauty, the rich culture. I got hooked!

Schulze is now the coordinator of the Nepal Project, which runs four programs in the country. The first program established, which she still oversees, operates a preschool, teaches organic farming, and offers small, low-interest loans to women. Schulze says the women always pay them back.

Leah Schulze: The benefit from that loan goes directly to the family, whereas unfortunately with the men it sometimes it doesn’t really end up helping the family as a whole. But with the women it really does. It goes for medicine, it goes for sending a child to school, for food, for family emergency.

But one of IPM’s most successful programs helping women and children is right here in Cleveland. Since 1995, Emily Edwards has run the Women’s Re-Entry Resource Network or WREN, a program that offers broad-range support for women leaving prison. In addition to community services, Edwards says there’s also a program in the county jail.

Emily Edwards: What we offer in there is a range of therapeutic support groups, information and education groups and individual case management and crisis counseling, to try to help the women while they’re there as well as bridge them to supportive services in the community before they get out and get lost.

Re-entry programs, whether public or private, are rare. But Edwards believes they are especially important for women, who often have children or other family members to support. WREN assists about 300 women annually out of a population of 500 women re-entering the community each year. And Edwards says the program works.

Emily Edwards: The national recidavism rate for this population is about 62%. Our recidavism rate is about 12%. While they’re actually in the program, the recidavism rate is even lower than that.

Charlotte White: ...which is exceptional. It’s awfully low.

Charlotte White agrees. She heads mental health services at the Cuyahoga County jail. White says WREN was the first re-entry service-provider to contract with the county. Recently she heard firsthand from a woman who made it thanks to WREN.

Charlotte White: I just wanted you all to know, she said, how important what you’re doing down there means to me personally. And then she said, make sure you keep WREN there, because they’re doing so many things for so many people.

In the spirit of giving, this evening a volunteer group of young Cleveland professionals involved with International Partners in Mission is hosting Namaste, a benefit featuring international dance, cuisine, and art. Namaste is a traditional Nepalese greeting that means “I salute the divine qualities in you.” In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.

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